Review: Leslie Feinberg's Drag King Dreams

Murdered Crossdressers, and Other Facts of Trans Life
review by Helen Boyd
June 3, 2006
Drag King Dreams
Caroll & Graf
by Leslie Feinberg
I’m not sure Leslie Feinberg has an actual fan club, but if there is one, I want in.
When I first read Stone Butch Blues, it blew my mind. A lesbian friend – since transitioned – made me read it. Made me, and for good reason: it’s like a sledgehammer of experience for anyone who has ever lived in the world as queer, or working class, and especially for anyone who has lived in the world as both. My friend knew it would speak to me, as it spoke to him.
Transgender Warriors was equally great, full of information, rage, inspiration. I remember practically pointing out passages to strangers on the subway when I was reading it.
But Drag King Dreams is like something from another world. Leslie Feinberg is not just remarkable as a person, and activist, but as a writer. Or as a radical, righteous soul. When I met hir at TIC (UVM’s trans conference), zie came up to thank me and Betty for what we were doing, and I could have been knocked over with a feather. I’m still astonished. Leslie Feinberg thanking me? For anything? Absurd. But now I know why. Leslie Feinberg was thinking about crossdressers, and zie was thining about crossdressers a lot, and in deep, empathetic ways.
Crossdressers: buy this book. You think I’m your friend? Leslie Feinberg is the mensch you want at your back, believe me.
The book starts with Max Rabinowitz (transman, drag king, genderqueer, bulldagger – it’s not really clear and doesn’t matter) talking to hir friend Vickie. In a moment of frustration, of ‘transer than thou’ anger, zie says something about how Vickie can take the clothes and the wig off and go back to being normal.
The next day Vickie is found brutally murdered.
And the rest of the book is Max’s meditation on friends, community, activism, family; it’s an insider’s view into being queer, being outside, being “other” while also being well-loved, deeply loving, and sorry. The book is Max’s apology to Vickie, for that moment of assumption and hierarchy that a crossdresser’s life is somehow “easier” than anyone else’s.
Throw in some amazing scenes about being ungendered online, a lovely exchange between a “tough as nails” femme and an “suit and tie bulldagger,” a remarkable speech by Vickie’s communist uncle; a chilling scene of an apartment break-in by mysterious and angry visitors, and one scene – an exchange of sweet, light coffee and flags – that was so touching, so genuine, and so intense that I could taste the coffee and jonesed for a smoke right along with Max.
The cast of characters is a veritable melting pot of transness and their empathizers: Estelle’s surviving wife being one. I’ve never seen myself in a novel before, and though I have no interest in living Estelle’s reality, some of her words rang out in ways that were profound to me. I cried a lot just thinking about her, who she is, who she is to me.
But it’s the delicacy that this book really thrives on: Feinberg doesn’t say “Max doesn’t feel solidarity with this asshole transman because he’s middle-class” but zie makes the point. Zie shows, not tells: the first lesson in fiction writing, and the one most writers get wrong.
Leslie Feinberg, THANK YOU.
You can find a discussion about Drag King Dreams, and Leslie Feinberg’s other books, Stone Butch Blues and Transgender Warriors, in our Reader’s Chair Forum. I’ve also got a list of books I recommend on gender/trans issues on my Recommended Reading page.